U-Shaped Curve of Despotism

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Peter Turchin:

"what has been called the ‘U-shaped curve of despotism’ in human evolution (p. 178) – from highly inegalitarian great apes (whose social arrangements, presumably, also characterized direct human ancestors) to egalitarian small-scale societies of huntergatherers, and then to large-scale hierarchical societies with their great inequities in the distribution of power, status, and wealth."


Peter Turchin:

"In his discussion of the despotic U-curve Bellah relies on Christopher Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Bellah gives a sympathetic and accurate account of this important book (one of many strengths of Religion in Human Evolution is the author’s ability to range across a very broad spectrum of social and natural disciplines). The main message of Boehm’s book is that equality does not simply happen because hunter-gatherers are poor and cannot accumulate much wealth. On the contrary, Boehm argues that equality requires active maintenance. People living in small-scale societies possess numerous norms and institutions designed to control ‘upstarts,’ those individuals who attempt to dominate others in order to control an unfair share of resources. The sanctions deployed against upstarts range from gossip and ridicule to ostracism and, ultimately, assassination. As Bellah concurs, Boehm does a very good job in describing how this system of escalating sanctions works in small-scale societies, although “he is perhaps less good at what I think is equally necessary, that is, the strong pull of social solidarity, especially as expressed in ritual, that rewards renunciation of dominance with a sense of full social acceptance” (p. 177). This sounds like an interesting idea, although it is not further developed in Bellah’s book."


Religion and Empire in the Axial Age. Invited Article for Religion, Brain & Behavior

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